Sunday, April 11, 2010

Importance of ritual and tradition

In my reading of Kate Tweedie Erslev's book, Full Circle: Fifteen Ways To Grow Lifelong UUs, I felt very validated to see her write that the fourth way is to "Ritualize Holiday Events and Celebratory Activities." In describing her survey of lifelong UUs she notes how many had fond memories of church activities as children especially holiday celebrations and repeated traditions at certain times of the year.

One of things I miss the most as a Roman Catholic Unitarian Universalist is the liturgical calendar. The calendar allows RCs all over the world to celebrate feast days and Saints lives in unison wherever one might be. I think one of the best things which the UUA could do to give a sense of cohesiveness and meaning to our religion is to have a liturgical calendar which all UUs can turn to to coordinate worship and activities. I know this flies in the face of the fiercely independent sense of congregational polity but maybe it is this lack of larger coordination and synergistic effort which has held the denomination back from growing into a more significant force in our modern society.

Erslev writes some important ideas about the use of ritual and celebration such as "What is most important in this context aren't the specific rituals themselves, but the idea that yearly congregational traditions need to be explicit and not added as an afterthought at the last minute." p.23 As a new emerging congregation, the Brockport Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is looking to have meaningful, relevant traditions. In our first 6 months of operation I think we have already developed two possibilities which will be "Founders Day" to celebrate our first service which we did with a pancake breakfast, and last week we had the Easter Food Hunt which was a special day where the children hid cans of food, the parents went hunting for it, and the findings were donated to the local food shelf.

Erslev writes further "It is necessary to work towards a balance between stability and change in order to create lifelong memories and commitment." p.24 Adherence to ritual and traditions cannot be deadening and stultifying but rather dynamic and life giving. In order for the later to happen and not the former traditions need to be kept alive by injecting new meaning and relevance each time they are repeated. The question should be "How is this ritual, celebration, life giving instead of just an obligatory rote repetition?"

Erslev wisely observes "Children want and need to repeat experiences. Consider the number of times a child will listen to a favorite song or bedtime story or watch a favorite video. to make memories we need to tell our stories over and over again trhough celebrations and ceremonies. Part of creating lifelong commitment is knowing and transmitting these stories." p.26 It is traditions and rituals that are repeated that deepen our faith. They provide a time for "re-membering" that is reconnecting with experiences, knowledges, practices that are significant and validating for us. This re-membering is what church institutions do well and help us, as human beings, develop and maintain a sense of stability, security, meaning, and well being in our lives. As people get older sometimes this kind of re-membering by celebrating and participating in long standing ritual and tradition is so powerful it brings tears to their eyes and deep warmth to their hearts.

What are your cherished memories of church celebrations and rituals? How have they deepened your faith and sense of well being? How do you work to maintain them and celebrate them in your church?


  1. Here's a
    RC tradition:

  2. At Unity Unitarian in St. Paul, there's been a lot of thought put into this. we have cyclical themes that provide a liturgical calendar per se on a 3-year cycle, and they align with seasonal and cultural themes, like transformation now in April and Love in February..

    the other cool new tradition started last year is our Unitarian Universalist Heritage Sources Supper at the end of February, where we gather in groups of about 12 to share a potluck and engage in a ritual together that remembers our heritage, including readings, songs, and small group sharing. it's the same every year, so we get to learn and be part of the history and it's wonderful!

  3. Hi Katy:

    It sounds wonderful at Unity Unitarian. This is a great example of what it seems may be helpful to a sense of roots, cohesiveness, security and stability.

    All the best,

    David Markham